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New Twitter features could help in fighting online abuse, say experts

Shruti Shekar
Telecom & Tech Reporter
The Twitter App loads on an iPhone in this illustration photograph taken in Los Angeles, California, U.S., July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake


Twitter is rolling out features to give users more control over what they post and how others reply to their tweets, a move that social media experts say could reduce online abuse and harassment.

At the Consumer Electronics Show this month, Twitter said it will add features to change the way users publish tweets.

The four options will be to set each tweet as a global, group, panel, or statement tweet. Global allows anyone to reply to a tweet; group allows replies only from people the user follows or mentions; panel allows only users who are mentioned in a tweet to reply; and statement does not allow any replies. 

The new features build on changes the platform tested late last year allowing users to hide replies to their own tweets. 

Twitter Canada said the new features haven’t been launched yet, and did not say when they would be.

In an emailed statement, Twitter Canada’s spokesperson Cam Gordon said the features are part of the company’s effort to combat online harassment.

“As part of our work to help people feel safe participating in the conversation on Twitter, we want to give them more control over the conversations they start,” Gordon said. 

Freelance reporter, and prolific Twitter user, Justin Ling told Yahoo Finance Canada in an interview that it was a “step in the right direction” for Twitter to combat online hate and bullying. However, he questioned whether there was a large enough audience to use these tools effectively. 

Ling said the majority of Twitter users are using the platform to keep up with news, sports, or to talk with friends. 

“For those people, for example, limiting tweet replies doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense… you’re not being trolled, there’s no harassment happening, generally speaking,” Ling said. “I think from that [perspective], I don’t know if there’s a huge constituency for this.” 

On the flip side, Ling explained that for an activist group that may tweet something that could receive hate or controversial comments, having these features are “a godsend.” 

“It stops the trolls from being able to coalesce in the comments,” he said. 

Ling noted that a statement tweet might best be used by a government agency or head of a country. 

“If the prime minister is going online to [declare] a state of emergency… yeah, I get why that would be broadcast only. There is no reason for discussion of that statement,” he said. 

Kayvon Beykpour, product lead at Twitter, tweeted earlier this month that the new features were only examples of what the company was planning to do “through experimentation” and are “not necessarily representative of the exact features we’ll ship after learning & iteration.”

Ramona Pringle, an associate professor at Ryerson University, said in an interview with Yahoo Finance Canada that social media platforms were traditionally used to reach as many people as possible, but over the past couple of years “we’ve seen how that can go wrong, how it can be misused, and how it can lead to a toxic environment that inhibits healthy conversation or meaningful debate.”

She said the new tools that Twitter plans to roll out seem like a “smart response to the way people actually use the platform.”

Pringle also said the new tools might not necessarily be used by everyone, but would particularly be beneficial to journalists, actors, and others with larger followings who might leave the platform because of hate or harassment.

“To have more tools, to enable those with positive, entertaining or important thoughts to share — as opposed to just letting the trolls win — is valuable, even if it isn’t a tool that most people use because most people aren’t broadcasting so broadly. If the tone can be changed based on high profile use, then maybe, hopefully, there is a cultural trickle-down effect,” she said.

Like Ling, Pringle agreed that hiding tweet replies can be incredibly beneficial to those who face online harassment.

However, a concern that many users expressed when the feature was announced was how this could allow misinformation to go unchallenged, but Pringle doesn’t see it as an issue. 

“It’s a really valid concern,” she said. “I think the responses to a particular tweet don’t get seen as much as the tweet itself. And I think quite often, instead, what you see when someone really wants to combat something is that they might quote tweet it and reference that tweet in another way.”

Suzanne Xie, director of product at Twitter, addressed this concern in a Jan. 8 tweet indicating that the social media platform was “taking the potential risks into consideration.”

“For instance, it will be important to allow quote tweets to help dispute/debunk as well as make it easier to find [quote tweets],” she tweeted.